Police should go slow on regulation of churches

When Pastor Ezekiel Odero appeared before Senior Principle Magistrate Joe Omido at Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa on May 2, 2023. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Police officers cannot be trusted to storm churches and arrest religious leaders they deem to be running cults just like they do illicit brew dens. Church leaders from Western Kenya have a valid concern after several incidents where police officers, chiefs and their assistants went to churches ostensibly to conduct investigations.

Majority of Kenyans agree that churches need to be regulated especially after the Shakahola massacre in Kilifi County, where so far 237 bodies have been exhumed from shallow graves. Reports indicate that the victims starved to death believing they were on a journey to meet Jesus.

Pastor Paul Mackenzie has been accused of preaching end-time messages and asking his adherents to fast and leave all worldly things. As investigations continue, the government must be careful not to engage in knee-jerk reaction. The tragedy requires well-calculated response and wider consultations.

It is laudable that President William Ruto has formed two task forces to make recommendations on the way forward. For too long, rogue clerics have taken gullible Kenyans for a ride.

They instill fear and despondency among followers, only to defraud them of their little property and cash. They make them believe that spending money on them is giving to God. They then live large; driving big cars and owning palatial homes. Such cleric need to reined in.

However, the government must be careful not to violate freedom of association and worship as enshrined in the Constitution. We must have structured engagement between the authorities, church leaders and other stakeholders.

Blanket condemnation and sending police officers to churches will make the situation worse. The government has access to intelligence collection mechanism, which can silently and effectively identify cultic tendencies. Such can then be confirmed by the teams set up to regulate churches and appropriate action taken.